Mascoutah business owner talks about investing downtown
Bill Millikin’s got a lot going on.
When he bought the building at 101 E. Main St. in Mascoutah in 2014, his original idea was to renovate it and create office space. But when Ace Hardware did an analysis of the local market and thought a hardware store would do well at the site, Millikin changed course.
Millikin said it was a challenge renovating the building that’s more than 100 years old, but it was more fun than building a plain-Jane box-type building on the outskirts of town.
But it’s what’s behind Ace that’s gotten locals’ attention recently: A warehouse that can handle 30,000 square feet of floor space. Millikin built it in part to serve as storage and additional retail space for the hardware store, but the bulk of the space houses his separate business, Millikin’s LLC, which packs and ships orders for startups and small businesses. It’s like a “mini-Amazon,” according to his friends.
Millikin has been in that business for 15 years, having first operated in St. Louis before coming to the metro-east in search of a smaller community with a better work force.
Q: How does your fulfillment business work?
A: “I’ve been in the consumer management business for about 15 years. We were in downtown St. Louis and worked with a lot of national brands and artists helping manage their consumer relations. The bulk of that business used to be mail order catalog, calling in asking about a product. That’s evolved in the last 15 years to mostly online, e-commerce. But we still take checks by mail, anybody who wants to buy something, we’ll find a way to help them do it. We are always looking for small- to mid-size companies, particularly start-up companies who are looking for someone to do what is called ‘turnkey implementation’ for them. If there’s inventors or investors that have products in the marketplace and they’re just on the cusp where they’re trying to do it all themselves, the sweet spot for my warehousing company is these inventors just want to be free to go out sell and invent and make the product go. We take all the infrastructure on by providing warehousing, distribution, telephone support. The key is to let small business owners their freedom to go out and do what they love to do. We provide the back end logistics that no one sees but everyone needs.”
Q: When you brought that to Mascoutah, was it an expansion?
A: “It was. We had been leasing space in St. Louis for years and I live closer to here, in Lebanon, so we wanted to get out of St. Louis and get into a local community that could provide us a much larger pool and better quality pool of employees to draw from and also grow from our facility in St. Louis which was about 12,000 square feet to this building, which has floor space of up to 30,000 square feet because it has multiple levels. It gave us room to grow and to own the building instead of leasing it.
Q: How did you get into the hardware business?
A: “I was looking for land in the area because Mascoutah has a good reputation for being easy to work with. We were working on building a warehouse building just north of town, but that deal kind of fell through. We were actually ready to leave but the real estate people said ‘Come on downtown, there’s a guy with a hardware store for sale, some land around it. We can make it work.’ And in a previous life out of college I worked in the lumber and hardware business, so I wasn’t afraid of that side of the business. We were able to make a deal on the building, which I love because it’s an old, historic building. I’ve always wanted to fix up an old building. The original plan was to liquidate the hardware store and turn it into office space but we had the folks at Ace come down and do an analysis. They agreed to help us put together the Ace Hardware that it is today.”
Q: What was it like renovating the building?
A: “The building needed a lot of help. It had some neglect. When it would rain we had to run around with 50 or 60 buckets catching the rain in different places. It needed a new roof, windows, tuck pointing, all that. It’s tough in a small town like this unless you’ve got a business plan. The hardware store wouldn’t have made it on its own. Being able to combine all of our businesses together to make the cash flow work by putting offices in half of the building, the hardware store in the other half and productive use of the land out back was what made it work.”
Q: Why did you want to renovate an old downtown building and do your business downtown?
A: “You can do hardware or anything else a couple different ways. But it’s a lot of fun getting into an old building, getting into a downtown space. People really appreciate you coming into a town and fixing the buildings up and making them look good. And in a smaller community like this it makes more sense to be downtown in the heart of everything. We could have gone out right up north of town, bought a square of land and put up a metal building. It wouldn’t have been as attractive when we got done with it. We were able to save about 60 percent of the old metal ceiling, which is probably one of the most ornate ceilings I’ve seen in in a long time in a building like this. It just made it a much more attractive project. It’s no fun building a white box and putting a parking lot out front.”
Q: What feedback do you get from people who see what you’ve done downtown?
A: “The feedback from the community has been just amazing. Everyone is constantly coming in, giving us compliments. Half of them think I’m crazy for taking on the project. The other half are just really happy that we did it, that we’ve saved what really is a beautiful, historic building. We’re bringing back a lot of services, supplies and products. A lot of folks are happy about the selection. We have added close to 19,000 different items in the store right now and will have 3,000 more in the next few months to add to that base.”
Job: Owner, Ace Hardware of Mascoutah and Millikin’s LLC.
What to watch for: Development of land across Church Street behind the warehouse. Millikin bought that ground, too.